Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Is That A Cistern?

So as many of you know it seems as if I am always in the process of some type of remodeling project either on my home or that of someone else. I am currently tackling the "last" room in my house that I haven't completely torn apart, rebuilt, and painstakingly put back together. This room is at the very back of the house behind the kitchen and was part of the old service part of the house. The kitchen, now one large room, originally consisted of a butler's pantry, kitchen and then a small hallway and half bath with this room behind it. Previous owners referred to this as the maid's room. After removing the half bath to enlarge the kitchen, I don't think bathrooms and kitchens should really mix anyway, this room is now on its way to becoming the new much larger, out of the way downstairs bath. Since there was no plumbing in this room new waste and water lines needed to go in, which required tearing up the old floor and digging under the house to connect everything to existing lines. When we took up the floor we discovered a large concrete structure just inches from the bottom of the floor that was of course right where we wanted to run our lines. As soon as I saw it I thought, "Is that a cistern?" The top visible part was covered in concrete and the sides were square and made of concrete block. 

Looking down at the top and side of the cistern
For those of you who may not know, cisterns were tanks constructed to store rainwater and were a common occurrence in early Florida homes before the arrival of municipal water systems. They were typically placed under the house or to the side and are almost always found in homes constructed before 1900. Dates vary of course as they were gradually phased out over time as the state's various city's installed utilities.

703 Rockledge Dr. showing large domed cistern under the two windows
beside the house
My house. Rummell House Built 1924
Bower House. Built 1925

What makes this find odd is that my home, which was built in 1924, was part of a planned subdivision that was heralded for its modernity and included its own waterworks. If this was a cistern it would not really have been needed, and would have been a bit old fashioned in a house that was otherwise very modern. After some research I have been able to determine that it was indeed a cistern and it is one of several that were built with homes constructed in Rockledge as late as 1929. Interestingly enough all of these later date cisterns were built with homes designed by Richard Rummell, a degreed architect and early pioneer of the area. Perhaps his experience with Florida droughts or a desire to have a back up to city water prompted him to include this feature. Turns out the house directly across the street from me, designed by Rummell for prominent local contractor Hervie Bower, has a room behind the kitchen that still has a hand pump coming through the floor that is undoubtedly connected to a cistern. A little more digging, not in the dirt this time thankfully, uncovered further proof in an article published in the Cocoa Tribune in 1929 about the construction of the Phebe Blakeslee home located at 1287 Rockledge Drive and shown below. The description given for this home reads, "Adjoining the kitchen is a laundry and this is complete with built-in ironing board and rain water from a large concrete cistern." So there you have it, we definitely have a cistern. Maybe Rummell should be considered one of Florida's first "green" builders for adding this environmentally friendly feature! In any case mystery solved. Feel free to comment if you know of any other cisterns that are not exactly where you expected to find them!

Blakeslee House, courtesy of the Brevard Property Appraiser's page.  Built 1929